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Friday, March 9, 2007 | In its petition for a charter from the San Diego Unified School District, the Health Sciences High School and Middle College made a bold promise — typed partially in bold: “HSHMC’s mission is to guarantee a high school diploma that truly matters, a diploma that counts.”

That vision won the backing from a majority of the school board last week, which approved the petition, paving way for the charter high school to open its doors next fall to 200 ninth and 10th graders. Once fully operational, the school expects to enroll 400 students.

There is, however, one hiccup in the school’s plans: Its doors won’t be located within the boundaries of the San Diego Unified School District. Instead, the charter school has picked a site inside the neighboring Grossmont Union High School District, which serves the cities of El Cajon, La Mesa and other parts of eastern San Diego County.

The founders of Health Sciences High say their school will offer students access to the necessary college preparatory curriculum, Advanced Placement courses and a program that reflects the latest academic research on teaching methods. A result of an unusual partnership between hospital operator Sharp HealthCare, area community colleges and several San Diego State University education professors, the school will also allow students to concurrently attend community college classes and take part in internships that will prepare them for a career in the health care industry. Several high-level Sharp executives will serve on the school’s board.

“We’ve been into high school reform for a long time, and it’s clear that high schools across the country are struggling to be more effective,” said Ian Pumpian, a San Diego State education professor and the Health Science High’s first chief education officer. “The notion of a small school is something that a lot of people are recognizing as a positive, strong factor.”

Though the school will be located just outside of the city, Pumpian said the selected site will be more centrally located and provide better access than many schools located in the city. In fact, it will be at a location that had previously served as a school.

Grossmont Union High School District Superintendent Terry Ryan, though, is less enthusiastic. In fact, he is almost livid, furious that his district was not invited to participate in the decision-making process. The move, he warns, could set a precedent that could eventually wreak financial havoc for all 42 school districts in the county.

Designed to promote innovation in the classroom, charter schools operate much like a regular public school, though without many of the restrictions and regulations imposed on regular districts. Some are started by interested parents and educators, while others are run by for-profit corporations. Though state law requires charter schools to give a priority to students from the districts that grant their charter, they may also enroll outside students. That, and the fact that state money follows the kids, is what troubles Ryan. He fears that Health Sciences High could cannibalize the district’s student population.

“I have two thoughts: One that I can repeat and one that I can’t. I’m concerned, dismayed and disappointed,” he said. “I’d like to express a deep disappointment in the fact that the Grossmont Union School District was not informed until the 12th hour about the forming of a high school in its district.”

San Diego district staff says the unusual situation was caused by a little-known provision in the state’s education code. The law allows districts to place charter schools outside their boundaries, but only after notifying the superintendent of the affected district and after the petitioners have exhausted their search for a site inside the district. The law is vague and specifies neither how early the notification must take place nor how exhaustive that search has to be. Until now, the practice has remained highly uncommon.

In their original charter petition filed in November, founders of Health Sciences High had indicated that they planned to open the school inside the city, though they had left the selection of the site for the final presentation to the school board. However, Pumpian said they never were able to locate a site in San Diego that included adequate green space and public accessibility and was still affordable.

Though San Diego district staff questioned whether the charter school had truly considered all of the available sites within the district, a majority of the school board said Pumpian and his supporters looked hard enough to satisfy the state requirement.

“It was not a conscious decision so much as an availability decision,” he said. “If we had known that we were going to locate the school outside of the boundaries, we would’ve never submitted our petition to San Diego Unified.”

When the petitioners did settle on a location outside the district, Pumpian said it was too late to take the charter application to a new agency and still get the school opened in time for the next school year.

Kyo Yamashiro, director of the Office of School Choice at the San Diego school district, said the location change took her staff by surprise, and the office scrambled to research the applicable state law. After discovering the notification requirement, the her staff told Pumpian to get in contact with Grossmont, and he sent a letter to that district’s president in late February — approximately a week before a vote on the charter school’s petition, and nearly a month after San Diego Unified conducted its public hearing on the application.

Grossmont has not yet had the time to research the legal issues involved, Ryan said. But the Grossmont superintendent worries that the school, if a significant number of his students choose to go there, could further exacerbate the financial challenges faced by his district. His district, like San Diego Unified, is seeing its enrollment — and thus state funding — shrink.

“This invites every school district to have outside charters open the doors in their boundaries. And I can say that the San Diego Unified has one third of all students in San Diego County, and they’re at the biggest risk,” he said.

He added: “Declining enrollment means less revenue, and less revenue means you’re going to be closing schools, potentially, and you’re going to be losing staff … and when you’re not growing, you don’t have the money to provide some of the raises you want to provide your employees.”

Another concern is how a school district can administer the campuses located outside its boundaries. Though the Julian Union Elementary School District has operated a charter school inside San Diego, Health Sciences High is the first time San Diego Unified has approved a school outside of the district.

“To date, we haven’t really had many problems with that,” Yamashiro said of the Julian school, “but I think for us, as the sponsoring agency, there are concerns about our ability to do oversight and communication. I think a lot of it is just uncharted territory.”

It was these concerns that resonated for Shelia Jackson, the lone San Diego school board member who voted to reject the charter.

“I felt, to me, it was a slap in the face of another school district to prove a charter there without their involvement,” she said. “It could be a lot easier for a smaller district to approve a charter in our area.”

Another board member, Jon de Beck, said the district staff took too long to study the issue. When its concerns about the location did come, Health Science High simply had no time to address them.

“For me, it was a lack of timely response on the part of the staff,” said de Beck, who voted in favor of approving the charter.

He added that he thought the site chosen by Pumpian and the other petitioners was “ideal.”

To date, the practice of affiliating a charter school with a different geographic district has been exceptionally rare. Though California’s 14-year-old charter school law has allowed it, and also lets schools to take their charter petitions directly to the county or even the state, only about a dozen schools in the state currently operate under an arrangement similar to that of Health Sciences High, said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. (The whole state has about 9,500 public schools.)

That, however, could change. Last year, California lawmakers created a new appeals process for school organizers whose charters are rejected at the district or county level. Larson said the new law, and the old provisions that allow districts to locate charter schools in other areas, are a good thing. Together, they help motivated parents, teachers and community groups gain an equal footing when they face off against obstructionist districts intent on protecting their state dollars, he said.

“And that’s how some school districts unfortunately view charter schools, as some competition for them,” Larson said.

And education experts say the practice is fairly common in other parts of the country.

“I not only think it’s legitimate, I think it’s a very interesting and positive development,” said Jorge Cardoso, who heads the Institute for Responsive Education at Cambridge College in Massachusetts. “There is no reason why geography has to be the deciding variable in how schools are organized.”

Cardoso argues that it is the responsibility of states to mitigate the potential financial impact of charter schools on traditional districts.

But in California, no new assistance is on the horizon. What is on the horizon, worries Ryan, is the potential that other schools may follow Health Sciences High’s lead, and he has called for a special meeting of all the superintendents in San Diego County to tackle the issue head on.

“I believe that every superintendent in this county will be concerned about the precedent-setting nature of this event,” he said. “And it extends far beyond the boundaries of Grossmont — not that boundaries matter any more.”

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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